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Conrad’s vitriolic pen
by Jake Highton
Sep 18, 2010 | 911 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“He who dares not offend cannot be honest.”

— Thomas Paine

Editorial cartoonists are one of the glories of the newspaper business. One great glory was Paul Conrad.

Conrad, who died recently, belongs in the pantheon of cartooning giants.

Among them: William Hogarth and James Gillray in 18th century Britain; Frenchman Honoré Daumier and American Thomas Nast in the 19th century; Britisher David Low and American David Levine in the 20th century; and Conrad’s contemporaries, Herblock, Bill Mauldin and Doug Marlette.

Conrad, a brilliant satirist, was loved or hated. His targets were scandals and scoundrels, rogues and rascals ­­— and always injustices.

He was hated by President Nixon but drew plaudits for making Nixon’s enemies list. Four times his taxes were audited in a fruitless search for dirt.

Readers complained that he was disrespectful of Nixon. He was — and rightly so. Great cartoonists are above presidents.

Conrad was a skilled craftsman with an incisive wit. His drawings were clean and concise, understandable at a glance.

“I figure that eight seconds is the absolute maximum time anyone should take,” Conrad said.

His pen was trenchant and mordant, his captions short or nonexistent.

He was fiercely independent. Although a liberal Democrat, Conrad savaged President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey as cowboys riding a Dr. Strangelove bomb blasting Vietnam.

On one issue he was neither liberal nor independent: abortion. His Catholicism obscured his vision. One cartoon showed a crucified infant.

Among my Conrad favorites:

• Nixon nailing himself to a cross during the Watergate scandal.

• President Carter, confessing he “lusted in his heart,” is looking at the Statue of Liberty while envisioning a busty, naked statute of liberty.

• A sign on the yellow brick road pointing to “Reaganomics” with President Reagan as a scarecrow. Reagan saying to Pope John Paul II: “You take care of the poor and I’ll take care of the rich!”

• The National Rifle Association opposition to any gun control regulation brought the caption “NRA pacifier” and a cartoon showing a guy with a gun in his mouth.

• He drew Defense Secretary McNamara at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of 58,000 dead, saying: “Sorry about that.”

• Attorney General Meese crushing the scales of justice was captioned “Of Meese and Men.”

• He drew a blank picture of a failed Hubble space telescope with the caption: “One picture is worth one and one-half billion dollars.”

• He drew Sarah Palin after defeat in the 2008 presidental election holding a smoking AK-47 in one hand and a dead GOP elephant trunk in the other.

“A cartoonist should get out of bed mad and stay mad,” Conrad said “The cartoonist’s function is a negative one.”

Good editorial cartoonists, unlike reporters, make no effort to be fair. Nast portrayed editor Horace Greeley shaking hands with the assassin John Wilkes Booth over Lincoln’s grave, a gross exaggeration.

All editorial cartoonists, no matter how great they were in their day, suffer from the ravages of time. The issues they illustrated fade into “ancient” history.

Newspapers rightly demand truth and accuracy. But they often don’t tell the truth in obituaries.

The editor of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed in the Conrad obit: “We have missed him since the day he retired.”

Sheer nonsense. He was forced out. Even while Conrad was drawing regularly the Times treated him shabbily, moving his cartoon from the editorial page to the op-ed page. His liberal views did not represent the august institutional voice of the Times.

Trying to shake its reactionary image, the Times lured Conrad from the Denver Post in 1964 because of his liberal cartooning.

But when his protector, Otis Chandler, retired as publisher in 1980, Conrad endured constant conservative assaults until he took a buyout in 1993. Even then he was denied the space in the Times that he was promised.

Conrad turned to wide syndication, proving he was bigger and better than the Times. But his treatment by the Times rankled, a disgraceful episode in the often sordid history of the Fourth Estate.

Conrad learned at the Times the truth of Nast’s lament that “policy always strangles individuals.”

Two of Conrad’s great cartoons were killed by los stupidos of the Times. One showed Vice President Agnew urinating on newspapers. The other showed the Republican elephant fornicating the with Democratic donkey. It was his sardonic view of phony bipartisanship that is still true today.

 Conrad’s lasting legacy is his vitriolic pen. Many of those skewered by it  must have heaved the anguished cry of Boss Tweed, who had been savaged by Nast: “Let’s stop them damn pictures.”

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at jake@unr.edu.
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